Those Indescribable Books

Alison Morris - September 25, 2007

Last week I posed the question of whether or not my ability to recall the details of a book’s plot details should somehow influence my review of said book, and several of you remarked that, yes, indeed, a story’s staying power is somehow indicative of its quality. Whether or not that’s the case, as a bookseller who has to be able to conjure up snappy, quick, on-the-spot reviews for customers on a daily basis, I can say that the books with the best "staying power" are the ones that probably fare the best on the hand-selling front. The better I can recall their details, the better I can describe them to others… usually.

The thorny bit here is that there are always books that I love and that really have "stayed with me," but which I nevertheless find difficult to describe to others in a way that sounds sufficiently enticing. There are a lot of wonderful books that just sound… boring or exceedingly odd, plot-wise, when you try to describe them to other people, or at least to young people. A grown-up might very well be won over by your descriptions of their fine writing, but many kids have a harder time being wooed solely by literary merits.

One of these books for me is The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer. Its length works against it, complicating matters, as the book is quite short for the audience I think it most appropriate for ages 12 and up. I have the hardest time telling people what this book is about without them looking at me cross-eyed or dismissing it outright because they don’t like the cover or the thickness of the volume or the fact that the main character has conversations with Jesus. (I’d be hardwon on those details, too, actually.) Selling this book is a true trust exercise — customers who know me and trust my recommendations may be talked into buying it, but others? Forget it.

Sometimes, too, I find it hard to sufficiently condense a book’s plot into a "sound bite-sized" package, making my descriptions feel overly cumbersome. Try to describe The Golden Compass in under two minutes, for example. I’ve managed to cut my description down to something that will usually win someone over, but I still find it hard to do so succinctly, in part because it’s a book that leaves you with so much to say. I had similar problems at first with Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, which has three times as much plot as it does pages, a feat that works beautifully in this book. Try to explain how the story begins here, moves there, then advances to another place, though, and you may notice a less-attentive audience shifting their weight with impatience. (Hence the reason my shelf talker explains it, in part, as Out of Africa meets Annie meets The Secret Garden. It insults the book a bit, I think, to imply that it might be derivitive, but it seems to tell customers plenty and we’ve since had no trouble selling the book.)

Is there a book you find it especially hard to convince other people to try reading? Have you discovered the perfect handle or an ideal hook? At our store we each learn the best tricks by eavesdropping on one another’s hand-selling efforts. Give all of us a chance to eavesdrop on your efforts here, and maybe it’ll help us work some magic with those hard-to-sell books.

4 thoughts on “Those Indescribable Books

  1. Shoumita

    I constantly have this problem trying to “sell” books to my book club, but this week, I got a group of neighborhood moms to buy into a book about a pair of comic-writing kids (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). The Pulitzer mention didn’t hurt…

  2. Lauren

    I also love “The Book of Everything” and find it hard to describe in terms of plot. Most helpful seems to be to describe it in terms of style — it’s written in a spare, poetic, every-word-counts style that brings you right into the book’s imaginative world. Reading it is like being transported into someone else’s dream, where certain words or images come to have special meaning that you’re privy to. In grad school lingo, it’s written in a mythopoetic mode. I think that “Criss Cross” has some of these elements as well. There’s another book that’s hard to make sound enticing by describing “what happens.” The writing itself is much of what happens.

  3. Dawn

    Being a book reviewer and an english teacher who daily advocates reading to college age students, I’ve discovered over the years that pitching a book depends entirely on the person you’re pitching it to. The reasons I may appreciate the book or play may come across as too academic, or stuffy, to the folks I book-talk to. The end result is me asking about their favorite story (I say that because those who are hesitant to read are often film goers who might just love a grand tale on paper rather than on screen). From there, I can discern the genre, and even style of writing, that they might appreciate, and I use the language they use to me to describe whichever book it is I come up with. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s worked for me! ~Dawn

  4. Jill Saginario

    I also loved “The Book of Everything” but have yet to successfully sell it to anyone except coworkers. Sigh. My most-often-struggled-over book has to be “How I Live Now”, though. It’s a tough one…


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